The world knows Shawn Johnson as a 2008 Olympic gymnastic champion and as the winner of ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. Even though she’s been in the spotlight since she was 16 years old, Johnson revealed last night at Eisenhower Auditorium in the Student Programming Association’s distinguished speaker series, that there’s more to her story and why she feels there was a higher purpose for second place win at the Olympics.
Johnson started her speech with an Instagram and Twitter request for the audience, telling everyone to “strike your best pose!” Johnson, now 21, says she’s an informal speaker and likes audience interaction. She really connected with everyone in the room – from six year old gymnasts to Penn Staters. She’s truly is a normal girl, unfazed by her celebrity status.
Johnson intimately reminisced about her struggles in elementary, middle and high school — even referencing the movie, Mean Girls. She was teased about her name (and was thinking about changing it to Mary at one time), and also about her fit and muscular gymnast body. She was a very shy girl, and due to her practice schedule, having a social life was hard. None of her classmates even knew she was a professional gymnast until she was on television and on her way to the Olympics.
“Being different is good, and you’re unique for a reason,” Johnson says. She stresses that it’s really important to be your own person, and also said that you shouldn’t make your world revolve around just one thing; she tried other sports other than gymnastics.
Johnson then went on to talk about her 2008 Olympic experience. She was undefeated when she went into the Olympics and stayed undefeated during the 16 competitions before airtime. The media expected that she was going to bring home the gold for our country. She had the weight of the world on her shoulders and the whole world watch—no pressure, right?
On her last event that would determine her placement into first, second or third, her teammate, Nastia Liukin just went before her and secured her spot at the first place winner with her spectacular performance. Johnson knew before she even preformed that she “failed” and felt like a disappointment for her country. But in that moment, Johnson says she never felt so free. It was liberating to finally performed for herself, not for anyone else, she says, and proved that her 13 years of training paid off.
The media scrutinized her about her first place loss, asking the 16-year-old how it feels to lose. Even though she was surrounded by negative media, she held her head up
Her second place win was the most significant win of her career, not because of champion status, but because of what this win taught her. “Find pride and praise within yourself if you win second place because its for you, not anybody else,” Johnson says. “Don’t do something if you’re not doing it for yourself.”
Johnson now is officially retired from her sport and extremely grounded young woman. She is involved with various charities, and wants to use her education from Vanderbilt to help mentor young female athletes about healthy nutrition and to be a source of mental support. She also wants to open an educational and recreational facility gym for kids.
Johnson ended her story with a Q&A with the audience. Her favorite color is turquoise, she just recently got a puppy, she picked Michael Phelps over Ryan Lochte and “may or may not have a boyfriend.” But that didn’t stop one audience member from asking her on a date to the Penn State Creamery!
Johnson is a real, down-to-earth woman, and feels grateful for her experiences because she wants to help girls follow their dreams but with positive reinforcement. There’s no wonder at all why she is—and deserves to be—a champion.
Photo by Jessica Korch